USFWS News Release: -- February 2, 2012 --
Nine juvenile whooping cranes on their first ultralight-led migration south will now be taken to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alabama in the next few days.
The nine whooping cranes will be loaded up in travel enclosures onto vehicles as soon as possible, driven about 70 miles from Winston County, Ala., to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. They will be placed in a secure pen, equipped with identification bands and tracking transmitters, then later released in the company of other whooping cranes that have been wintering there.
“We are fortunate to be in a position to help by standing in for our sister refuges at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks in Florida,” said Dwight Cooley, refuge manager for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, on the outskirts of Decatur, Alabama, which lies on border of Tennessee. “While we hope they will visit us again in coming winters, where they eventually winter is not nearly as important as their survival, and the hope they will complete many more migrations in years to come. Their continued safety is our highest concern. ”
He went on to say the refuge hosted more than 11,000 sandhill cranes at the refuge this winter, as well as seven whooping cranes.
“We also have fantastic observation facilities and viewing platforms that allow great views and don’t disturb the wildlife,” said Cooley. “We’ve got great habitat and conditions, as evidenced by the number of cranes wintering on the refuge.”
The original plan was to have the Operation Migration pilots use ultralight aircraft to guide the birds further south to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida – their originally planned wintering sites. The migration had been sidelined for over a month by an issue involving FAA flying policies. FAA granted a waiver for the flight, but the cranes apparently decided Alabama was far enough, refusing to follow the ultralights. The cranes had been imprinted to follow the pilots of the ultralights who are dressed in whooping crane costumes. The warm winter may also have had an impact on the cranes refusal to fly further south.
The nine whooping cranes are part of an effort to establish an Eastern Migratory population for one of the most endangered birds in the world. Cranes have been taught variations of the eastern migratory route for the past decade. There are now about 104 cranes in the eastern population. One crane that had dropped out of the migration in the first few days ended up joining migrating sandhill cranes, ultimately wintering in Florida.